One of the side effects of defining a regional literature, like that of the American West, is that inevitably readers will define the work (and thereby the region itself) by the authorial representations of only a handful of writers. Their books represent the few masterpieces that have reached beyond the constrictions of a specific place to connect with readers beyond their territory, and as a result, younger writers are forced to reckon with the great ghosts of the past, whose characters have become the prototypes a national audience expects. Laboring under such weighty expectations, most young writers will fail, producing, at best, works that merely summon the memory of the great book that came before.
Once in a very great while, though, a book comes along that not only embraces the grandmammas and grandpapas that set the standard, but also manages to eke out its own rightful place on the family homestead.
High Country by Willard Wyman represents volume 15 in the Literature of the American West Series (general editor William Kittredge) published by the University of Oklahoma Press, and the only disappointment surrounding this book will be the quiet reception traditionally accorded books published by university presses. Beginning in Depression-era Montana, the novel traces the life of Ty Hardin, who, at 15, leaves his family’s failing ranch to apprentice himself to Fenton Pardee, a legendary mule packer in the Montana Rockies. Ty is shy, rail-thin, and more than a little smitten with Pardee’s much younger wife, Cody Jo. Despite his uneasiness, though, Ty is a natural with the animals, and the life he begins that season, guiding packed mules across the Swan Range all the way to the Great Divide, is one that will inform every subsequent moment of his life. In one scene, illustrating Ty’s first days as a packer, readers begin to sense the importance of his experience:
“The moon lifted and gave Ty a ghostly picture of the country below—the high lakes making darker stains above where the timber began. They rode down, crossing the lake-drainage just as a coyote lifted a cry from high above. Others answered, calling and yipping, making such a racket that the first voice was lost…The Bitterroot was almost forgotten as Ty rode into this new life with these new people.”
When packing season ends, Pardee and Cody Jo arrange for Ty to stay in Missoula for high school. Only rarely does he return to the family ranch, choosing instead to stay in town where some of Pardee’s well-seasoned workers initiate Ty in matters of sex and alcohol at their favorite local hangout, The Bar of Justice.
Much more than a coming-of-age novel, High Country follows Ty and his newly adopted family through World War II and its aftermath, all the way through to the 1980s. In the footsteps of his mentor, Ty becomes a packing legend in his own right, embracing a path that eventually leads him out of Montana and into the Sierra Nevada.
Early in their friendship, Cody Jo teaches the teenaged Ty to dance, insisting the boy has “natural rhythm.” In prose genuine and utterly unpretentious, Wyman mimics that rhythm in his novel’s arc, allowing the lives of Ty, Fenton, Cody Jo and others to intertwine and separate. Sex, marriage and death bring the characters close together and force them, often tragically, apart. All the while, Wyman’s path remains seamless, straightforward, and so fearless that certain events will leave readers feeling as though their stomachs have dropped to their knees. Wyman’s depictions of these lives help to make his book as grand as the mountains of its landscape. As a friend tells Ty, “I think your ‘West’ is these people. I think it’s something inside them—that’s ‘the West.’”
High Country’s book jacket describes Wyman’s writing as “in the tradition of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.” Additionally, the Swan Range of High Country is the setting of A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s The Big Sky. Despite these echoes of the most popular literature of the American West, High Country stands firmly on its own. Perhaps the success is because the packing trade (as opposed to fishing, for instance) hasn’t been as thoroughly explored in Western literature before. Or, more directly, perhaps it’s because having been a packer and guide in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Sierra Nevada for more than 40 years, Wyman knows this West and the people who populate it so well. Either way, he’s a writer uninhibited by the masters of his own generation.
Willard Wyman reads and signs copies of High Country at Fact & Fiction Thursday, March 16, at 7 PM.